Losing a Sibling Is A Shock That Changes Everything
In our NYC therapy practice, we treat patients who have to deal with the many changes that come with grieving the loss of a sibling. No matter what your relationship was with your brother or sister, he or she has likely always been there in one way or another–on holidays, at birthdays, on weekends or even, daily. There was a rhythm to the way you interacted, whether connecting, conspiring or bickering, that has been disrupted. The death of a sibling not only changes you, but your relationship with your parents, your other siblings and the family dynamic. In short, the loss of a sibling changes everything.
Whether the loss is through a prolonged illness like cancer or a sudden tragic loss, the death of a sibling can be a painful shock. One reason losing a sibling can feel so shocking is that it can make life feel out of order. Often we think about and are, in some ways, prepared for the loss of older relatives–our grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles. But, our siblings are supposed to make it to the end with us. He or she is supposed to be there for the big emotional moments in your life whether your wedding, meeting your partner, helping you with your aging parents, celebrating your 40th birthday or attending your kid’s graduation and birth.
When Dealing With A Sibling’s Death, You Grieve Many Different Losses
Whether it was a sudden or gradual death, losing a sibling is a shock to the system and once the shock wears off, you are left with the pain that they are gone. Even if you weren’t a part of the accident or didn’t go through cancer treatments like your sibling, you are a surviving sibling. You are surviving the trauma of losing a sibling and with trauma comes pain.
Often when grieving the loss of a sibling, you are grieving many different losses. For example, if you were close with your them, there is a double loss to be grieved: the loss of a friendship, as well as a familial bond. You not only lost a sister, for instance, but your best friend–someone who guided and encouraged you in a different way than your parents.
Similarly, if you had a fraught relationship with your sibling, you may be grieving the loss of a chance at resolution. For example, maybe you loved and cared for your brother, but there was also a frustration of competition or disappointment. After his death, you’re left to work through this challenging relationship on your own. While this is a complication of grief in general, we often assume that with a sibling, there will always be more time to work things out.
The Death Of A Sibling Also Changes The Family Dynamic
In families, especially families with siblings, there is a natural pecking order. You take on different roles with your parents and other family members depending on, often, who is the oldest, youngest or middle child. When the loss of a sibling happens as an adult, a family has to take a hard look at itself and how it functions, which is difficult to do when you are all breaking down from grief. This shift may also have happened even before their death if Mom or Dad had to once again become caregivers to their adult child, while other siblings stepped in (or didn’t) to relieve them.
For example, if your late sibling was the leader of the family, other siblings might feel adrift on how to lead without them. Mom or Dad may have relied on him or her and now, someone else has to step up. This often brings up questions for surviving siblings. If Mom or Dad relied on your late sibling who lived close by while you live in another state, you may have to consider uprooting to care for them.
How Can You Work With Your Family To Process These Changes After A Sibling’s Death?
In many ways, the shift in the family dynamic after a sibling’s passing is unavoidable. Your family went from four members to three, or six members to five. Working with your family to process this change can look a lot of different ways.
Sometimes, it means naming that you are all going to be sad together for a while without expecting perfection or happiness. Finding ways to be together is an important way to connect when grieving, especially planning a holiday or event like a BBQ rather than doing the same thing that you used to do with your sibling there. It can also be helpful to create a ritual for your sibling’s memory like walking to a place they enjoyed or creating a memorial or object that signifies them in order to both honor them as a person and acknowledge that they are no longer here.
At times, you may have to acknowledge that your parents might need their own individual or couples therapy after losing their child and push them to do this rather than making you their therapist or distraction from grief. Other times, you all might want to come in to therapy as a family unit to lay out this shift that no one planned in the family. This way you do not need to navigate this change alone, but have a therapist who can help hold the whole family as you grieve your sibling’s loss.
When Grieving A Sibling’s Death, Self-Care Is Also Essential
While it’s important to be concerned with your family dynamic and the changes that are endured after the death of a sibling, getting through the pain personally day-by-day is also crucial. Often with this pain of losing someone who has always been there, you might forget to care for your basic needs like sleeping, eating, exercising, showing up to work or connecting with your partner and kids. When you’re grieving, caring for yourself usually takes a backseat because you’re trying to hold it together or take care of your parents who are struggling with the pain of losing their child.
One way you can care for yourself and negotiate with the pain is to state your needs by navigating work and relationships. Often this means saying no to things you aren’t ready to do. For example, maybe you need to ask to work from home for two days a week or take a leave of absence from your job because just functioning at the office is tough and you need to take care of yourself and your family around this loss. With friends, you might need to request, “I just need you to come over while I cry. We can hang, but I might just stare at the wall a bit.” It’s also okay to kindly let people know stop asking you how you’re doing. It can be a way of saying, “I know I’m feeling shitty. I’ll tell you what I need.”
Therapy Can Be A Place To Hold The Pain And Grief After Losing A Sibling
Another way to take care of yourself while grieving the death of your sibling is by going to therapy. Having someone else to talk to who isn’t in the family can be healing because all your family is suffering. While everyone in a family grieving together can be, at once, lovely, messy and painful, having a therapist who can hold the pain, while also not being a part of this dynamic, allows you room to grieve on your own and in your own space, as well as process this unique relationship you had with your sibling.
In the therapy room, you don’t have the added pressure of acting as a caretaker for your mom, dad, sister, brother kid or even, your partner. You can voice your needs to your therapist by saying, “I want to talk about my sibling. I just want to be a mess–not fix anything but just fall apart here since I have to hold it together so much outside.”
After giving your pain and grief the attention it needs, a therapist can also be a person to collaborate with on ways to organize yourself and the family system in a different way after this loss. Even though it might feel like your sibling is everywhere around you, you still have to rebuild your life and your family without them physically there. When you have a loss, you often evaluate what really matters in life. Does the city work for you anymore? Do you want to invest more into your relationships with your family? Do you need space to build outside your family in a new way that your family or you never knew could work or that you needed? Often a loss of a sibling creates non-negotiable growth and therapy can help you unpack, feel, grow, and create after the loss.